Sunday, March 6, 2011

Getting Out Of Your Own Way

I spent all last week looking forward to the workshop I was attending yesterday at the Perth Writers Festival- one titled Getting Out of Your Own Way, with author Jon Bauer. On Thursday, I mentioned some of the things that are stopping me from writing right now. So, needless to say, I expected big things from this day- and I wasn't disappointed.

I knew the workshop was going to be amazing when I got a call from Jon Bauer last Monday, asking me a bit about my writing and what I felt was getting in my way. How's that for engaging with your class? It was so out of the blue that I could barely come up with anything coherent, so I told him it was my core plot. Having now done the class, I imagine he might have rolled his eyes at that, because it wasn't a great off-the-cuff answer. What I really meant was, my inability to move past the stage of worrying about the core plot. What's the story about? What am I trying to say? What does it all mean? I worry and worry, and when I worry, it's not really about that plot. It's about what happens if I get it wrong, again.

Will all this work have been for nothing? Will I have to rewrite another six times before I get it right? Does it mean I'll never make it as a writer?

Here are a couple of things that instantly made me feel better.

First, Jon told us that he redrafted his first novel, Rocks in the Belly, no less than 200 times before it was publication-ready. All of a sudden I feel a little lacking in the endless rewrite department. This is something I've never felt before. It's good.

Second, he gave us his opinion that "writer" is not a valid noun in this circumstance. You are not a writer. As long as you are doing the work, you are writing. It's the verb that matters.

And if you're not writing and you want to be, then the only thing standing in your way is you.

What kind of roadblocks come into our path? The list, thrown out by the audience of writers, was long, and included the following kinds of things:

Self-criticism- Time- Validity- Ability- Ego- Prioritising- Habits- Confidence- Owning the title- Space- Criticism- Lack of training- Perfectionism- Too many ideas- Too few ideas- Clarity and focus- Procrastination- Friends and family- Excuses- Avoidance- Internet- Never finishing anything- Career and money- The need to eat and sleep- Research

All of it, though, boils down to just one thing:


And it's not fear of others that holds us up. It's fear of our own self-criticism. Even if we fear that others will say nasty things about our work, we fear it because of the internal backlash that comes of it.

We did one of the most fascinating exercises ever to demonstrate this. I can't replicate it for you, but I can describe how it felt, and it was utterly intriguing.

First, we had to write a biography of ourselves as a writer. Just a quick, ten minute exercise. Nobody else was going to see it- this was something we'd been promised before the course and during the class- so we were free to go off on whatever flights of fancy we wanted, imagining ourselves at the end of our writing lives, and looking back over what went well and what didn't.

Ten minutes later, and I had 800 extremely flighty words of drivel.

And then we were told we actually all had to read it out loud. Ha! Oh man. It felt like being back in high school for a second or two, but it wasn't so bad. We'd all written the same thing- a dorky account of our hopes and dreams as a writer, and no question everyone else would understand that it was pretty average. We buddied up and read aloud to each other, and I survived without dying of embarrassment over passages like the following:

Life and writing became a twin rollercoaster, roaring up and down, together and apart, rushing her through a field of emotions more varied than she had ever known. The writing world became tangled up inside her so much that she could never let it go. Time away from it became guilty time. Every moment she didn’t move forward, every time she moved backward, every time she didn’t get it just right, felt like a blow to her spirit that became increasingly hard to bear.

(See my humility shining through here? I really am unafraid to share anything- which may be a problem in itself, as I shall discuss a little further down).

So, all good. The next exercise was to take a line we loved from our original biography, and use that to start a story- except we had to write as badly as we possibly could. We get so worked up about doing it all right that it's nigh on impossible to force bad writing out- ironic that we so often criticise ourselves, thinking we've done just that.

I started mine with my favourite line. I went for cliches, telling-not-showing, non-existent plot, as-you-know-Bob, head-hopping, godawful dialogue, distant point of view- everything I could think of. It was truly awful. I was proud.

As one might have expected, we had to read this out to each other, too. The game was up by then, so we all knew it. No fear there, either, because we'd been so deliberate about writing badly that the whole thing was funny, and funny on purpose. The lady I was working with made me laugh out loud in at least six places.

Next stage- we had to look through this awfulness and find one good line. The point here was that no matter how bad it is, there's always something good you can take away. By this stage it was a bit of a challenge, because I'd mangled the living hell out of what I wrote, but heck. I'm up for a challenge.

And then came the real kicker- now we were asked to write something brilliant, starting with that line.

This is where the experiment became really interesting. The mood in the room changed significantly. Everyone had been laughing and chatting, and the next moment, bam. Silence. Seriousness. Lots of long faces, mine included. Panic set in. Brilliant? What? We got a promise that we wouldn't have to read this one, but this time with an additional proviso- as long as we could explain why we didn't want to.

So, to writing, and everything about the process was different. The first two times, I just wrote. I had this lunatic idea about a girl's grandmother stealing her boyfriend, and it seemed suitably awful for a piece of work that was meant to be bad. But suddenly I was supposed to turn it into something good, and oh, the pressure! The pain! Every single word had to earn its place on the page. Every single idea was judged. Nope, not good enough. Nope, that wouldn't hold people's interest. Nope, that's ridiculous. People will think I'm an idiot. Not clever enough. Too embarrassing. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The first two times, I wrote around 800 words. The third time I only got 400. I deleted a chunk out of the middle of it and started again halfway through. It was a bit torturous. I may have lost a couple of chunks of hair.

What a difference. Writing as if nobody was going to read it, writing as if it didn't matter whether it was brilliant or terrible as long as it was fun to do- that was enjoyable. Worrying about the rest was no good at all.

And yet that's how I and so many others write all the time. We pick our words against a backdrop of judgement that other people have yet to lay down. We criticise ourselves before we even get anywhere.

Interesting point here: what do we compare ourselves with when we look at our work and think it's not good enough? Invariably, we're thinking about published fiction we've read. But that published fiction exists at the other end of a spectrum of editing that our first drafts can't even hope to emulate. That work has been polished and repolished by the author, over and over again, then by a slew of editors before it gets to the printed page. Yet here we are, holding our own brand new work up against that, complaining that it doesn't cut the mustard.

How unreasonable are we? Totally!

So, here's the down-low on what to do. It comes down to the fact that all those obstacles just exist. It's up to you to keep writing anyway, in spite of them.

To keep improving, Jon suggests there are only three things you need to do:
  • Write, and keep working on getting better at it.
  • Share it with others, and listen to advice.
  • Read, lots.
On the topic of sharing it, however, he did have a fairly firm opinion that there's a time for doing that, and a time for not doing it. Only when you've finished the first draft and worked through revisions of a second, perhaps more- only when you feel comfortable with the writing yourself- should you expose it to others who can help. If you do it before that, when you're still critical of it yourself, then you stand to damage your confidence, because others will surely be just as critical (and on a side note, if they're not, that's doing you a different kind of damage).

Write because you love it, and don't think about anyone else. Don't try to get it perfect. Just do it for the enjoyment of the process, and of knowing that eventually, with a lot of hard work, you'll have something complete and even good. You need to let the creativity flow in the first draft, and then you can bring a bit of reason and logic to bear in the editing stages.

Jon also quoted Susan Sontag, who said, "writing feels like following and leading, both, and at the same time." (In America, 2000)- sometimes we need to think about what we're doing and decide where it has to go; sometimes we just have to feel it.

To finish, I'll leave you with one of my favourite comments from the workshop yesterday, and that was this- humans are uncannily able to sense truth in each other. Therefore if you write about something you care about, something you're passionate about and have an authentic connection to, the audience will feel it. Try to write like that and you'll have something beautiful and memorable, and you'll make a true connection with your readers.


  1. Claire, what a fantastic post - as a psych I find this fascinating! And I especially love the final paragraph, how true that truth is (;-)) - something to tattoo into the writing brain!

  2. Dani, it really was bizarre to feel how suddenly my mindset shifted when I thought I had to produce something great, and especially when I thought it was going to be judged by other people right away. And yet this is how I operate all the time- I post first draft material frequently at my writers community, and the reception tends to be good. But it's not the reception that matters- it's the thought process that it introduces into my writing, and that's the damaging bit. Between this and yesterday's publishing truths, I have a brand new drive to write for my own enjoyment first and foremost, and forget the rest. I have a sneaky feeling it's the long-awaited secret answer to getting it just right.

  3. Claire, this is such good stuff. You would think we could get past this comparison thing but it takes a huge conscious effort some days to simply write like me and not worry if Awesome Author A or Awesome Author B would have done it this way or used that POV or whatever. First drafts should be the place where we have fun, where anything still might happen.

    The only way I'd have been able to write in class and then read it would be to get tricked into it! I tend to blank in those settings, even without the pressure of immediate sharing, because my head hasn't had time to go to that place where I write from, which requires solitude. I'm not one of those coffee shop writers.

  4. Lori, I kept waiting for him to talk about resistance, because it was all the same kind of mental tricks Pressfield discusses in The War of Art :)

    I was the same about writing in front of other people. It feels like taking your clothes off in public or something! I kept worrying that the person behind me was going to read something idiotic on my screen before I had a chance to wipe it off the face of the earth (and there you have it, worrying about what others are going to think again).

    And yet during NaNoWriMo, I went along to a couple of write-ins and had a blast! I even got 4000 words written in one four-hour block there, and I think it was because we were all just gunning it and having fun, no strings attached. I went into NaNo with a silent pact with myself that I could ditch every word I wrote in November if it didn't fit, and it freed me up amazingly.

  5. Did he bring a backpack to unload with all of your "obstacles" to success like the guy in "Up in the Air?"

  6. Brilliant! Simple and brilliant! I'm still letting the implications sink in. Thanks for sharing this, Claire. I may have to think about this the rest of the day...after writing a word or two. ; )

  7. I was feeling sympathy pains when you got to writing something brilliant from out of the dross. Sounds like an excellent workshop! Thank you so much for telling us about it.

  8. Write like no one is going to read it... (Where have heard that before?) [vbg]

    I have to say, it's spot-on good advice for me. I often get hung up on what others might think and you're right - a first draft is no place to feel that fear nor is it fair to place the measuring stick next a baby draft that hasn't been nurtured beyond SFD stage.

  9. Claire - this is simply wonderfuly. I read it twice. Thank you for sharing your experience, I will keep the lessons you outline in my mind.

  10. Thanks for sharing all this with us Claire. I'm not 100 per cent sure that it's what I do - I think I do tend to write for myself first and foremost. But then, my fear comes when I'm editing, and yes, I do that comparing-myself-to-published-authors thing. All the time. I'm so afraid to reread my own work cos it's going to take so many rounds of revision before I even get close to really good.
    One reason, I suppose, that I can never ever stand to hear my work read out loud. If I have to, I'll read it, but I can't bear others reading it before me.
    Wonder if I'll ever write something one day that I can stand to listen to?

  11. Thanks for this Claire...and funnily enough I'm able to follow this advice so much better for some projects than for others. If I'm aiming to write something more literary, suddenly the self-expectation rises and I have all the problems your workshop dealt with above.

    Definitely a timely reminder!

  12. This was really good to read--especially since I've definitely been having troubles with my own writing. I know I fear it being bad and not worthwhile when I shouldn't. It's getting rid of the fear that's hard.

    That workshop sounds like it's great. And your last paragraph was wonderful. :)

  13. @Rogue- ha! No. And sadly it wasn't George Clooney giving the class.

    @Zan Marie- way to kick that fear in the butt ;)

    @L- yep. I should have seen it coming, but I more or less had a heart attack on the spot, as did everyone else, I think. Hope it helps!

    @Susan- hmm, yes, slightly familiar (g).

  14. @Kari- hope it turns on as many lightbulbs for you as it did for me :)

    @Deniz- this class would have done your head in, then. I'm not embarrassed to share anything I've written, nor am I the slightest bit cowed by any kind of public speaking. Reading out my crappy work was nothing but fun. But when it got to reading out the "good" stuff I'd written- good grief, I think every bit of blood in my body converged in my cheeks. I haven't blushed like that since I was a teenager. As to the revisions- Jon's comment that he revised 200 times reminded me of Peter Carey's comment that he rewrites every chapter at least 20 times. First time I've felt like I'm not doing it enough! We'll get there.

  15. @Adina- that's so, so true. Same for me, too. When I'm going for literary, the stakes are automatically raised. I think it's one of the reasons why my work started to verge off into more mainstream territory in the last couple of years. This week has convinced me to steer it back the other way...

    @Devin- I'd love to claim credit for the last paragraph, but I'm paraphrasing exactly what the awesome presenter said. It was a really great workshop.

  16. Wow, this is a totally awesome post! Lots of great stuff here. I know a crappy sense of self-confidence when it comes to writing really gets in my way. It's a struggle to get out of it sometimes. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  17. So much really great information here. Really sounded like a great and beneficial conference to attend.

  18. @Laura- no worries! Hope it helps :)

    @Regina- most definitely. It's the first year I've attended, and I'm so pleased I did.

  19. Alberta ross has a suprise for you on her page

  20. Claire, this post is fantastic and so chock full of great advice.. thanks for posting!

    Jen (who needs to remember to get out of her own way)